25 years after Exxon Valdez; Will history repeat itself in Alaska?

Clean up crews blast oiled rocks after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. 

US Coast Guard

We will never know the full extent of the changes to Prince William Sound, but we do know that a similar tragedy could unfold in Arctic waters today.

Editor's note: Nicole Whittington-Evans is The Wilderness Society's Alaska Director. In this blog she reflects on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound and the lessons to be learned for Alaska's Arctic waters today. 


Three decades ago, humpback whales breeched offshore and salmon leapt from the waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound on a perfect summer evening. It was the first night of my incredible introduction to Alaska: a month-long kayak trip in a pristine place that would soon be changed forever by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The sea otters, seals, killer whales we saw on that trip were as wonderful as the friendly fishermen who offered us all the crab and halibut we could eat. I had never before experienced anything like the beauty and resources of Prince William Sound.

Then, 25 years ago, came the fateful morning of March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil, fouling approximately 1,300 miles of coastline. Hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals were affected, and the environmental damage was devastating.

Photo: The Exxon Valdez in its oil slick. 

We have only estimates for the total number of animals affected or killed, because most carcasses sunk when oiled, making them impossible to count.  We will never know the full extent of the changes to Prince William Sound because, for so many aspects of the area’s ecology, there was no baseline information. 

Twenty-five years after the spill, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council -- which was established to oversee restoration of the ecosystem using $900 million from a civil settlement – reports that of the  injured wildlife species it has been working to restore, nine species are considered “recovered” (including sockeye salmon and harbor seals); seven species are “recovering” (including killer whales and black oystercatchers); and two are not recovering (Pacific herring and pigeon guillemots). 

Photo: Scientists examine the carcass of a gray whale before performing a necropsy to determine if it was killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Alaska, USA, 1989

"We have only estimates for the total number of animals affected or killed, because most carcasses sunk when oiled, making them impossible to count."

The spill also affected commercial fishing, as well as recreational and subsistence uses of the Sound, and resulted in huge economic losses. The commercial herring fishery still hasn’t recovered. There’s no assurance that it ever will. To this day, oil can still be found on some beaches.

Will history repeat itself?

Photo: An oiled bald eagle waits to be taken to a wildlife rescue center in Valdez, Alaska, after the oil spill.

A similar disaster could unfold in the Arctic Ocean if oil companies are allowed to explore and develop energy reserves in this harsh, remote and little-understood region. Industry has no proven technology for recovering significant amounts of oil from water, much less from rough, icy seas, and a late-season well blowout could leave oil spewing for months under the Arctic ice cap. 

In the Arctic Ocean, where ice dominates for most of the year, energy companies are not equipped to safely drill for oil and gas, onshore infrastructure is lacking, and the government has not developed regulations to effectively guide oil and gas operations.  Shell’s series of errors when it attempted to drill in the Arctic Ocean during 2012 demonstrated that oil companies are not prepared for Arctic conditions.

"Let us hope we learn from the past and protect the Arctic Ocean so that we never have to mark the 25th anniversary of another disastrous Alaska oil spill." 

Offshore drilling in America’s Arctic poses severe threats to species such as polar bears, fish, walruses and bowhead whales, as well as to Alaska Native communities that depend on the Arctic Ocean as a source of food. The collapse of an important subsistence species could threaten the cultural survival of local communities. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a catastrophe for Prince William Sound and the communities on its shores. Twenty-five years later, the Sound is still recovering, and the lessons are still unfolding.

Let us hope we learn from the past and protect the Arctic Ocean so that we never have to mark the 25th anniversary of another disastrous Alaska oil spill. 

 

Photos: A look back at the Exxon Valdez oil spill  

Workers spray hot water on oil covered rocks in Northwest Bay after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA, 1989

A biologist carries a dead oiled bald eagle collected in Katmai after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Alaska, USA, 1989

High tide mark shows oil on rocky shore spilled by Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska

A bear walks on an oiled Katmai beach in Alaska after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Oil leaches off an island beach weeks after the Exxon Valdez lost its oil. Alaska, USA, 1989

A bird carcass on the beach of the Alaska peninsula more than 500 miles away from the site of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Tired oil clean-up workers after a long day of clean up. 

 

A red fox explores territory spattered with oil. 

The supertanker Exxon Valdez lies hard around Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA. 1992

An oily patch near seaweed on Prince William Sound.

Workers spray hot water on oil-covered beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Exxon Valdez oil spill, USA, 1989

Researchers catch sea otters in Short Arm Bay in the Bay of Isles on Knight Island, the epicenter of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The data is used to estimate the impact of the oil spill on the sea otter population.

 

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